Guess what? It all depends! The first thing it depends on is whether or not the scores are a reflection of your actual abilities and accomplishments. There really are people who don’t test well but are superb students. If you know that you can outperform students with much higher test scores, then your test scores alone should not be the deciding factor in which schools to apply to. However, if you were sick the day of the test or maybe in the test center from hell, you should consider retaking the test.
The next consideration is the college-does it have holistic admissions or is it strictly a class rank/GPA/test scores kind of process? Institutions with holistic admissions consider more than just test scores. That means that if the rest of your application shows you to be a good match for the school, your test scores are not the single deciding factor. Especially for competitive colleges, test scores are just one way to demonstrate to the college that you are minimally qualified. It’s the rest of the application that determines admissions.
If there are two equal applications with the only difference being test scores, the admissions office will probably take the student with the higher scores. However, all things are rarely equal.
And consider the fact that someone has to be in the bottom 25th percentile of students admitted. One out of four students will have scores lower than the middle 50th percentile range.
You can look up how low the scores go at the BigFuture website. For example, Lehigh University has a 50th percentile range of SAT Critical Reading scores of 580 to 670 but five percent of student had a score less than 500. Of course, since Lehigh is a D1 school, chances are those admission slots are reserved for highly recruited athletes.
If generous financial aid is a critical factor in your college search, you should avoid colleges where you don’t rank in the upper third of applicants because of preferential packaging. Colleges have only a limited amount of money for financial aid and are more likely to meet the need of the more desirable students, and they get to define “desirable.” However, if financial aid isn’t a necessity, you may have a “full-pay hook” that can increase your chances of admissions even if you have lower test scores.
If the college allows you the opportunity to provide more than just test scores as part of the application process, it’s possible to be admitted with lower than average test scores. The question is whether or not you can afford to attend if you’re admitted.